The Cold War
Is a vaccine for the common cold impossible? Many believe so, but some scientists are up for the challenge
James Strachan |
The common cold is more than just a nuisance: it is one of the leading causes of community-acquired pneumonia requiring hospitalization in children, and can cause serious problems for people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The majority of common colds are caused by rhinoviruses, but so far scientists haven’t been able to develop a vaccine. Why? There are 170 serotypes (or strains) of rhinovirus, whereas poliovirus (which is in the same family) only has three. A vaccine for the common cold has been considered by many in the pharma industry to be an insurmountable problem.
But Martin Moore, Associate Professor at Emory University, enjoys a challenge. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to tackle it, but that’s what makes it fun!” says Moore. “We delved into old literature from the 1970s – and found that teams from the University of Virginia, the US National Institutes of Health, and the UK Medical Research Council’s Common Cold Research Unit had shown that a monovalent-killed rhinovirus vaccine could induce protective antibodies and prevent colds when volunteers were challenged with the homologous strain.”
The vaccines were safe and worked fairly well in the clinic, but the number of serotypes was a problem – the original researchers managed to pick out 10 different serotypes and combine them into one shot, but it wasn’t enough. When they challenged someone with a serotype that wasn’t in the vaccine, they’d catch the cold.
In Moore’s study, the team managed to combine 50 different serotypes into one vaccine (1). “Others have looked for conserved proteins and protein regions among the rhinovirus serotypes. But we want to utilize natural immunogens, and we wanted to base our vaccine on a clinically successful approach – killed virus. So we just mixed them together – a solution that in retrospect seems simple but was not obvious. Thanks to modern technology, we were able to include a higher quantity of each strain in our vaccine compared to the old studies, and that made the difference,” says Moore. The vaccine proved to be broadly and potently immunogenic in rhesus monkeys.
Believing in the potential of the vaccine, Moore has co-founded a startup company to take the project further: Meissa Vaccines. The key question his team now faces is how to manufacture and scale up the vaccine. “The process would be similar to inactivated poliovirus vaccine,” says Moore. “We are looking into specific patient populations, the molecular epidemiology of the virus, and manufacturing processes – which are our major challenges.” The company also has support from the US National Institute of Health to develop a manufacturing plan.
- S Lee et al., “A polyvalent inactivated rhinovirus vaccine is broadly immunogenic in rhesus macaques”, Nat Comm, 12838 (2016).